The Legal Hiring Process: Why Must It Take So Long?

Harrison Barnes

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Summary: The legal hiring process includes a number of steps that take time. This article explores the reasons why and how legal job seekers can improve their odds of getting through it.

  • For any job, the hiring process requires a series of steps and those take time. For an attorney, with potentially higher salaries at stake and intense competition, expect the process to take longer.
  • This article breaks down the steps, how they have changed, and what you should expect.
  • For attorneys making a lateral move, the time frame increases by multiples.
  • Find out the things you can do to increase your chances of being hired by a law firm.

@#$%! Why does it take so long to get an answer?

Part of it is how you experience time itself: There’s employed time and unemployed time and the former tends to move much faster than the latter. If you’re looking for a job without already having one, the greater urgency can have the effect of “dilating” time—making it drag on agonizingly. Anxiety is a powerful drug.

Try not to lose perspective. You’re going through a difficult transition. Has the wait really been going on so long?

Anxiety aside, the days are getting longer

Generally, the legal hiring cycle can be from two to six weeks:

This “cycle” is known as “time-to-hire” or “time-to-fill,” which represents the number of days between approval of the job requisition to acceptance by the winning candidate. From 2010 to 2015, this time has increased 62% for larger corporations. CEB found that the average time-to-hire for white-collar positions was an excruciating 68 business days—26 days longer than it was in 2010. According to a LinkedIn study, by 2017, dependent on the job and pay range, time-to-hire was taking up to four months. A recruitment survey by SHRM showed the average period of time-to-hire (AKA time-to-fill) was 41 days.

Some have argued that the lengthening of time-to-hire is actually a good sign: the lag could be a signal of more job openings available than there are applicants to fill them.
Still, in any situation there’s always a strong likelihood that you’re not going to be the one they pick. This is true whether you’re searching on your own with job boards or working with a legal recruiter:

In the legal profession, it’s always going to be highly competitive—whether you’re in competition against ten or more than a hundred other applicants. Legal hiring managers say that 75% of their applicants aren’t the kind of qualified attorneys their position requires. Then, right off the top 98% are eliminated in the initial screening. Out of those remaining, generally 6-8 candidates are picked for an interview. If fortune smiles and you’re one of the chosen few invited for the interview, according to Glassdoor—based on an analysis of more than 340,000 interviews, the average job interview process alone takes 23 days.

Some of the reasons why it does take so long:

  • From the time a legal job is posted, it often takes nine days to get through the screening process of applicant tracking systems (ATS) as well as human reviewers. Based on iCIMS data, a resume spends 23% of its time in the screening phase.
  • A major reason résumés get stuck in the screening phase is because 71% of recruiters use an ATS that doesn’t allow the option of ranking résumés. Companies and law firms that use talent-management software for résumés will screen out up to 50% of them before anyone ever sees them.
  • Once screened, it can take two weeks to schedule an interview (i.e. taking into account scheduling conflicts, partners traveling out of town, etc.).
  • Where you live can also have a significant effect—metropolitan legal markets will process candidates slower than smaller markets if only because larger markets get many more applicants. The size of the law firm also matters—in law firms with 250 to 10,000 attorneys, as much as 6 days can be added to the process.
  • What industry you’re applying to can have an effect, the pay scale, size of the organization (smaller is faster); government jobs have cycles and requirements that can influence time frames too; sometimes law firms can have elaborate protocols for assessments, reference checks, etc., and this adds time to this process.
  • According to a CareerBuilder report, nearly 75% of people currently working are open to a new opportunity but only about 18% of them are actively searching job posts—add to that number those search who don’t have jobs and that’s a substantial pool of competitors.
  • Legal hiring managers have been known to allow candidates résumés to sit unreviewed for weeks at a time. According to, this is in part due to a lack of communication between recruiters and hiring managers, a situation it calls “the single most common reason it takes longer…to fill an opening.”
  • Organizations too often are looking for impossibly good candidates. This can keep them dragging out the process, holding out for something better. Legal hiring teams can be overwhelmed by choices.
  • And then there’s hiring by committee: More layers to navigate through, more discussions and conflicting preferences. And as with anything, too many cooks…
  • Recruiters often blame legal hiring managers for dragging their feet, waiting for too-good-to-be-true “unicorn” candidates, or just generally being too distracted by other tasks to make hiring a top priority.
  • For legal job seekers, there are always many possible snafus that can pop up along the way. A law firm can change the scope, level, or other requirements of the job and may need more time to adjust and recalibrate. Budget parameters or a job description can be modified mid-search. Or, another partner could be added to the decision-making team to force other potential delays. Even after your interview, law firms can restart the process again for whatever reason. It’s often difficult to find a single discernible cause.
  • If a law firm’s process includes checking references, background checks, or conflicts checks, these can also slow progress.
  • Sometimes, the legal hiring manager or partner tasked with finding candidates may be bringing the wrong attorneys on board because they themselves lack the understanding of the job and may not be well-positioned enough to write the job posting. If the law firm finds itself attracting the wrong legal candidates, they’ll be forced to restart the process.
  • As an active legal candidate, your fiercest competition may be from passive candidates who make up 75% of legal hires. Internal candidates make up 26%; government organizations are most likely to fill positions internally.
  • Though going back to a former employer may be uncomfortable, many law firms are seeing the value in rehiring attorneys. If you left the law firm in good standing, you have an advantage over new hires in that you already understand the law firm’s culture (which, of course, may be exactly why you left). Firms know that hiring and training new associates is expensive and risky. Instead, when they hire former associates that know the firm’s standards and protocols, those costs shrink. Also: 43% of qualified women will leave their careers temporarily at some point to raise children.

When more is at stake, expect it to take more time: Lateral moves

Time is money: This is never more true than it is in the legal industry. It’s not without irony then that lateral moves can take as long as they do, even longer as associates become more senior.

Many lawyers, especially those in bigger markets and at bigger law firms, can find themselves approached often by prospect firms and recruiters—inundated even. And because there is so much at stake for law firms to get it right, the legal recruitment process can be slow and long. For both recruiter and recruited, the experience can be exhaustive in both time and emotion. Typically, the law firm lateral hiring process will take 3-12 months. Some may take as long as three years—expect the hiring process for a big law firm to be thorough and excruciatingly slow. Be prepared: These will be the steps in the legal hiring process. If you’re not ready for this kind of investment and energy at this time in your career, you could be better off devoting yourself to client development and billing efforts where you are.

How it works: Steps in the hiring and interviewing process for attorney lateral moves

  • If selected for an interview, the candidate will generally initially have a screening interview. The screening interview may be by phone or in person, and usually lasts about 30 minutes
  • If the attorney passes the screening interview, they will generally have a “full round” of interviews, which usually involves 2-4 hours of interviews with the practice group leader, managing partner, and leaders of the firm, as well as some associates.
  • The candidate may also meet with groups of partners from the local office and practice groups to assess a culture-fit—at this stage, the interviewing attorney should also be determining if the firm is also a good fit for them. To this end the attorney candidate should ask their own questions, fact-check, and take copious notes.
  • A conflicts check will also be required. The candidate should provide a list of clients they’ve worked with—they’re under no legal obligation to offer anything more. Candidate conflicts may disqualify a candidate from an opportunity at the firm.
  • For lateral partners, the process will include the LPQ—Lateral Partner Questionnaire: A form which can be from 2-25 pages. This will be used to help in determining compensation and build the candidate’s case among the partners.

And if you don’t already feel bad enough…

  • Estimates of open positions that are never advertised range from 70% to as high as 85%.
  • On the upside for legal job seekers, 56% of all employers reported that candidates had rejected job offers. Winning, even if in second place, increases your overall chances considerably.
  • Those considered the best A-list candidates are generally off-the-market within 10 days.
  • Law schools, while continuing to raise their tuition costs, are producing nearly twice as many graduating law students as the job market can absorb. Whether you’re a senior associate or not, this adds pressure for your own prospects.
  • You’d think the law firms themselves might do more to prevent associate attrition—which is estimated to be between 15%-25% in general and as high as 50% for minorities and women—due to the enormous costs: According to a NALP update for 2017, losing one associate can cost a firm between $200 and $500K. That’s big bite for any business to withstand.

Where You May Have Gone Wrong

Applying to more jobs won’t increase your chances of getting hired

But making your presentation better will. Honing in on your targets and improving your searchability can make a significant difference. Improving your presentation should also include scrubbing your online reputation, particularly in your social media channels. Limit and/or improve anything that will serve to enhance perceptions of your abilities and character.

What you can do:

  • 37% of employers use social networks as a means for screening candidates; 2 in 5 companies are browsing your social media profiles to evaluate your character and personality: According to a survey from CareerBuilder, screening candidates based on social media is at an all-time high at 70%. By all indications it should only continue to grow.
  • CareerBuilder also claimed that 29% of those hiring found something positive on a profile to drive them to offer the candidate a job. The employer got a good feel on the candidate’s personality.
  • Also, to be silent or invisible online may present you at a disadvantage. Being engaged on social networking sites increases your visibility and searchability with prospective employers.
  • When vetting your social media, make sure there are no typos. Present only personal photographs that present you most favorably.
  • Automated screening tools, like an ATS, are used by 26% of organizations to review résumés.
  • Make sure your résumé is optimized with keywords that law firms are using in their job descriptions. Don’t use the right ones, no matter how ideal a candidate you are, and your résumé will be screened out.
  • Make sure your résumé writes to the future, not the past: make it a marketing document, not a historical record. Highlight your current career goals as well as determine which parts of your story would be best to minimize. Give heavier emphasis to your credentials, experience, and accomplishments that relate to your objective, less to things that don’t.
  • Prepare an elevator pitch: A pitch that will, in 60 seconds, allow you to explain what you’re looking for as your next step and how you can create value—through highlighting your accomplishments. This pitch can then be configured for cover letters, networking, and even family and friends when you discuss your job search. If you’re clear about what you want and are able to come across as motivated and valuable, people will be more willing to help you.

Haven’t heard? How you can prompt an up or down answer

  • Check-in, with caution: At reasonable intervals—not daily—check in to let them know of your interest in the position. It is best to change it up and communicate using various media: use email, wait two weeks; leave a voicemail, wait again; and then leave a message with the partner’s secretary.
  • Why are you calling?: If you have new information to communicate—a new article you’ve written or some other new accomplishment, let the law firm know. It’s best to have a reason, an “excuse,” to contact the firm.
  • Be collegial, even if you’re not feeling it: Always be pleasant in all your communications, even if the negligent contactee hasn’t kept their promise of letting you know. Professionalism is important. Gauge your responses before continuing on. If they’re friendly and encouraging, that’s a good sign. If they’re cool and indifferent, it’ll be time to concentrate on another opportunity. Even if they once told you to call them back and you can tell the climate has changed. It’s a safe bet it won’t be sunny again.
  • Managing your rejection: Rejection rides the same neurological pathways as physical pain; it’s not just in your head—it’s real, as has been shown in fMRI studies. It had an evolutionary purpose—to prevent us from being ostracized by the group. So, yes, rejection hurts a lot by design. In fact, because it’s like physical pain, a pain reliever like Tylenol can help. We know that the rejection of not getting the job hurts, and we know that not getting many jobs hurts even more. It can be potentially debilitating—an esteem-destroying missile—so you absolutely cannot let that happen to you. Rejection even lowers your IQ. Resist it: Give yourself affirmations: “This wasn’t ‘the’ job. This wasn’t the firm. I’ll be better off this way.” Etc. Keep yourself motivated. Don’t let yourself get beaten down: Keep your eyes on the prize and looking ahead.

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company, LawCrossing, has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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